by George Bailey.
I have been the moderator of this blog since July 2016 – I am immensely grateful to all who have contributed, to those who have let me know that this is a helpful activity, and to those who have offered ideas for improving the way things work. I want to invite some methodological conversation about the way ahead.
We have claimed to be engaging in “theology everywhere,” under the tag line, “discussing theology today to transform tomorrow.” I drafted this line, but have grown increasingly unsure about one aspect of it. I think we should hold onto the assertion that theology is transformative. However, the first clause is more ambiguous – to what extent is “discussing” a helpful way of characterising what we do here?
What are we doing when we discuss theology? Here are three possible ways of answering this (there are others!)[i]. Perhaps each of the three ways is primary for different contributors to this blog, though for many of us several methodologies overlap. I am concerned that the word “discussing” too strongly invites only the first interpretation.
Is theology a body of knowledge that is constructed by Christians, to which we contribute through our discussions? This is the model which I think is most clearly hinted at by the current description of the site, and one which it is easy to assume if we look at what actually happens – one person does some thinking and publishes it; others read and discuss it, online or in their daily encounters. Within this understanding, “discussing theology everywhere” is a helpful impetus for encouraging many people to join in with the construction of theological understanding and progress. The key problem with this understanding of what is happening is that it is very human-centred. At the heart of most Christian theology has not actually been the combined effort of the followers of Christ to describe who Christ is and what following Christ means, but rather the heart has been, and I argue continues to be, Christ himself, and our relationship with Christ. The logic of 1 John 4:19 can be appropriated here; we can talk about God, because God first talked to us.
Is theology, then, knowledge which is revealed to us? In this way of thinking, the primary aim of “discussing theology” is to encourage one another to receive it more fully rather than to add to it by construction. Theology is the result of experience of God, revealed in Christ, enabled by the Spirit. We can learn from one another of the diverse ways that people receive and interpret the experience of God in our lives, but the primary locus of theology is revelation rather than construction. This implies a dynamic relationship with Scripture and with the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. Theology is the continuing revelation of Jesus Christ through the life of the Spirit in the followers of Christ, as described in John 16:12-13a: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” However, this begs the question of how truth is known and expressed. Is the truth we receive a written description or is it more of a lived reality?
Is theology, primarily, neither the result of a constructive process nor reflection on an experience, but rather an activity in itself – a performative art which one practices in order to develop ability and potential, and which one then exercises in order to communicate with and to serve others? On this view the most important locus for theology is the practice of church life, and the interface between church and the surrounding communities and cultures. To “discuss” theology is to inhabit a role similar to the critic or commentator – it is unhelpful to muddle the critic or commentator with the people taking an active part in things. Great footballers do not necessarily make great commentators, or journalists great politicians, nor vice versa. Is this blog for active performing theologians or for critical commentators on the theological action of the Church? I think both are welcome, and through reflective practice we often inhabit both roles, though they do have the potential to get confused. Does the concept of “discussing theology” too readily encourage commentary and remove us from the real action? The real theology of this blog does not happen in the published articles or discussions, but in the changes they provoke in the practice of those who read them. I can testify personally to this process for many weeks’ articles; notable in my recent memory are my practice of the Covenant service, my desire to seek Christology for a new technological age and my attitude to meat at the dinner table.
I suggest we drop “discussing” from the description, leaving it as “theology today to transform tomorrow,” not to discourage discussion, but in order to encourage each other both to experience revelation and to practice theology in our daily lives.
Please comment – do you agree with this subtle change? Can you explain how the blog relates practically to your own theology?
[i] I have not included references to the many texts which have in some way informed this particular categorisation of theological method. Two which organise their analysis in different ways to this, but which I have found especially helpful recently have been Graham, E., Walton, H., Ward, F. (2005), Theological Reflection: Methods, London: SCM; and Allen, P. (2012) Theological Method: A Guide for the Perplexed, London and New York: T&T Clark.
8 thoughts on “Theology… where?”
My initial thoughts are that if you drop the word ‘discussing’ I would feel I was being talked at rather than talked to.
It would feel like I was being told what to think instead of being invited to share an opinion. A bit like a sermon in fact!
Hi George – that seems a good change to me. In practice, I try to make a habit of reading these posts every week. I receive them a bit like a Methodist “thought for the week”. Once read, they appear to disappear without trace alongside the hundreds of thousands of other words I read or hear in those seven days. I have to hope that this is not the case….that the material we habitually receive shapes our thinking and thus our acting, even if we have “forgotten” the material 5 minutes after we’ve read it. I haven’t made any major changes to my life as a disciple as a result of any of these posts but that doesn’t mean that they won’t have influence on me. For instance, the whole animal welfare / environmental sustainability of meat production thing is something I’ve been thinking about for a while (I’m currently an omnivore). David’s article hasn’t made me make the change, but rather like the story about the weight of a snowflake, it may be one of the factors that will tip the balance for me sooner or later.
Thank you for asking the question George, whilst I like the term discussion I tend to agree with your point.
I look back to Gill Newton’s post on wrestling with God/ Theology and wonder in what sense this is as you have suggested a starting point for reflection/ personal transformation.
Back to the discussion element however, maybe these posts can be a starting point for that. Certainly my regional staff meeting have been discussing the possibility of taking one of these posts each month as a starting point for our own discussions.
Hi George. I like words that invite me to action! so I do like a ‘do’ word; which for those that know me says possible more about me than I would like. I wonder if the question over the word discussing reflects on whether people do engage with the posts once posted, I for one prefer discussions face to face rather than online. Would a replacement word like exploring be more suitable?
I have read your expatiation on theology with deep amazement because theology must have contextualization. Can you contextualize your faith in God, Jesus Christ and revelation in the context of the African Holocaust that shaped the world we live in today economically and theologically. One cannot write theology without contextualization, connection, engagement and embracement. These must come from the context of the nefarious transatlantic slave trade in Africans. The slave trade was invented by Christian nations of Europe, Britain and America along with the invention of a Caucasian Jesus Christ without any historical and theological evidence. That is where theology, revelation, the holy spirit and Christ is to be found. Deal with these from your historical, cultural and theological perspective?
These are really helpful comments, strangely I am at the moment doing some research on the art of disputation and its development from early times and its effect on the reformation. The nature of discussion in this context is an interesting one, as the disputation methods evolved into several different styles of learning and teaching, particularly in relation to Christian doctrine. What I have found is that this approach of teaching…someone producing a text and notes and others discussing it from different perspectives (Luther’s 95 theses, Zwingli’s 67 articles etc) did seem to move the church forward and was a device through which God did reveal himself through individuals and groups, it was also a device through which people’s ideas were checked and tested. Disputations were both literary (published) and public (face to face)…therefore I believe discussion of itself to be an important tool for growth in both theological understanding and its practice. This online blog seems to me to be a contemporary continuation of this ancient tradition of disputation.
Just a wee thought !!!
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Hi George. Discussion I think should remain. The discussion maybe in one’s own head in the main. What are the comments if not discussion?
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Hi everyone. Thanks for the comments on this – I have been following closely. It has been encouraging to hear of different ways that people are using the site to stimulate their theological thinking and doing during the week. I like Shetland Monk’s comparison of the site to the 95 theses and ensuing discussion! At present I am teaching a church history course and we are just getting to the Reformation. I think you describe the process of theological change through disputation well – it would be a mistake to seek to understand the period only by reading Luther, as the theology was the result of the whole discussion and a whole people undertaking significant changes. As rammiriam points out, we must listen to all the voices, especially those of the oppressed.
Well, should I change the site’s tagline? From the comments posted, we seem to have a split vote, and this is reflected by my offline conversations – so I think I will stick with the status quo. However, I hope this methodological week has been helpful for everyone to think through what we are doing together – we are all theologians when we engage with this – the theology is in the discussion, prompted by the article which is posted, but lived out in each person’s life and ministry. Please keep posting comments everyone! Thanks, George